Monthly Archives: September 2011

Never the Same Woods Twice


Or maybe it is? Pre-Socratic philosophers started debating this point around 500 BC. Heraclitis may (or may not) have said “Panta rhei” [“Everything changes (or, possibly, flows)”], famously declaring that one could never dip one’s toe into the same stream twice. Pamenides, on the other hand, was an early conservation-of-matter guy, declaring “Change is impossible.” There is nothing new under the sun. [Not even the sun.] Wade Lassister set this idea to music in the finale of the 1980 musical & film, Fame: “I sing the body electric (a line lifted directly from Leaves of Grass). I celebrate the me yet to come. I toast to my own reunion, when I become one with the sun.” The song ends cute with the astrophysical & show biz prediction, “and in time, and in time, we will all be stars.”

It’s still a hot topic for Presidential candidates, whether the Earth’s climate is actually, irreversibly changing, or just going through what David Bowie might call one of its cyclical “Ch-ch-changes.” If only we were French, and could simply finesse the argument with a bon mot: “Plus ca change, plus c’est le meme chose.”

For a while this summer, every walk in the woods lent support to what Parmenides termed dismissively “the mistaken opinion that things had changed.” In the wake of the earthquake, and tropical storms, many mighty trees had fallen. Some of them, eerily, days later. [Thank goodness for Lili, the “timberwolf,” who in the past has given me a “heads up” of falling lumber, and so allayed my fear of being poleaxed.]

But falling trees have not been the only hazard on our woodland walks this summer. A few weeks ago we were assailed by an unleashed, Hound-of-the-Baskervilles-type dog, who came growling and charging at us, leaving its (oblivious? psychopathic?) master far behind. It was fear that got up my nose, but Lili might have been merely affronted by the intrusion. In the melee of snarls & skirmishes that ensued, I was dragged off my feet (not once, but twice), in an attempt to keep hold of Lili’s leash. Only when I was on the ground the second time, did the other owner speak. “I’ll call my dog, and he’ll follow me,” he said. By now, my humiliation and pain & suffering had banished all Japanese commands from my consciousness, and I was reduced to shouting “God damn it!” to all and sundry. I can vouch for the efficacy of swearing as an analgesic, though [see “Why Keep a Dog & Bark Yourself?”]. On the wings of my adrenaline, we flew through the woods in record time; and only later at home, when the bruises “bloomed,” did I realize that I could have been seriously injured.

Since then, I have “played Backgammon” with the incident, revisiting it in my mind, trying to figure out what would have been a better “Not your victim, not your enemy” response to the situation, to make it stop haunting me. In retrospect, I decided I should have told the owner to grab hold of his dog. [Nar’mean?] I should also have taken off my over-the-shoulder European leash and held it in both hands, for better leverage. Every time I’ve seen his telltale Range Rover illegally parked at the entrance to the woods (where are the police when you want them?), I have rehearsed my “flame-out chart” what-to-do list, ready for action.

Yesterday was the rematch. This time, the owner was strolling even farther behind his snarling, charging dog. Initially, I commanded Lili [in our Japanese code] to “lie down” and “stay”; but when the other dog made aggressive contact, I realized our power subtext was “lame gazelle,” so I just held onto Lili’s leash as she barked and lunged. This time I yelled, “Do you have a leash?” No reply. Eventually, the owner called “Skipper” a few times, and reluctantly the dog left the fray and headed back to its master, only to turn around and make a second sortie. This time I shouted, “Do you have a leash?” until he beckoned Skipper again, and they proceeded on their way.

So, that was my Parmenidian moment: “Nothing changes. You can try to rewrite the script, but you’ll still end up looking (and sounding) like a shrill, histrionic loser who can’t take the heat, while the smug thug with the flash car and the free-range dog looks like a winner.”

Ah, but was it a complete rerun? At least this time I didn’t fall down and get dragged like a rodeo clown; and I communicated clearly that the guy should have put his dog on a leash [which is both the custom and the law in these woods]. So, encouraged, we forged ahead with our walk.

Just as we were cresting the hill where the mid-summer fracas had occurred, I made out the outlines of a tall man and a large dog approaching. But I took the Heraclitian view, that these two were not my old nemeses, that each man/dog encounter was “a different stream,” and that things might turn out differently for us this time. So I put Lili at a “down/stay,” ensuring her compliance by stepping on the leash to keep her there. A totally different man, with a Cockney accent and a huge black lab on a chain, smiled as they passed peaceably by, and said, “I do that, too. I put my foot on the lead sometimes, for more control.”

Heraclitis was right! It’s never the same woods twice.

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Filed under attribution theory, gets right up my nose, power subtext

Hide or Seek?


When you find yourself in times of trouble (you know, terrorist attacks, earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, extended power outages), do you want to hide under the covers until it’s over, or seek out the company of others? One day in 1975, while sitting in the back row of an American Airlines jet out of LaGuardia, I had a great view of the port-side engine exploding on take-off. The laid-back voice of the pilot came on, drawling, “Now, folks, those of you on the lefthand side of the aircraft might have noticed a loud bang and some sparks coming out of the engine just now. We’ve shut it down, and we’ll be circling Long Island Sound for a little while, before returning to LaGuardia Airport. We regret any inconvenience this might cause y’all.”

Naturally, I took this as my cue to begin cracking wise to my fellow back row passengers, in an effort to provide a little comic relief and team-building. Trust me, I was hilarious; but did any one of them make eye contact, smile, or even lift their shoulders in the Phatic, “I know, right?” gesture signifying “I heard you, but I don’t want to get into it right now”? Nary a one. The young man next to me was underlining his textbook so intensely, that his pen tore the page. Others literally pulled their blankets (remember airline blankets?) over their heads for the duration of our half hour flight, back to a foamed runway flanked with a contingent of firetrucks. You know when a stand-up comic is losing the crowd and asks, “Anyone here from out-of-town?” I figured these stiffs were all just visiting from Cincinnati (the flight’s putative destination), since no self-respecting group of New Yorkers could have resisted my schtick. They would have joined my improv and tried to top my gallows humor with their own zingers, ya know?

It’s easy to guess what was up their noses, though, right? Fear of crashing; and, who’d a thunk it, the intrusion of my banter into their silent recitation of the Act of Contrition (or whatever).
I, on the other hand was feeling humiliation, that my attempts to Find the Funny in the situation were Not Well Received; and the pain & suffering of feeling All Alone.

That’s what’s so sad about last week’s contretemps with Billie Joe Armstrong on Southwest. The airline whose best feature had been its cabin crews’ ability to Find the Funny in every situation, and transform nervous strangers into a jolly group of Fellow Travelers, became known as the Uptight Enforcers of a Strict Dress Code (No Saggy Pants Allowed). What a somber little half hour flight from Oakland to Burbank that must have been, after the obstreperous Greenday frontman was frog-marched off the plane. Did any remaining passenger have the moxie to crack wise to his fellow row-mates, I wonder, or did they all just hide themselves away in their paperbacks and iPods?

Good thing the fuselage of that plane didn’t deconstruct like a sardine can, right? (Or a wild goose wasn’t sucked into the left engine, as happened to us, back in 1975.) It would have been every man for himself.

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Filed under comic relief, gets right up my nose, reference group